How can we balance caring for others while looking after ourselves?

“People often ask how to balance caring for others while looking after ourselves. If we look in our hearts and realise that what we really want is the happiness of others, then we may feel inspired to try and make everyone happy. What often happens though is that we can’t do it: instead we get exhausted and decide that what we really need is to look after ourselves. But that doesn’t sound like Bodhisattva activity does it? If we are told to think of ourselves rather than others that seems to bring us back to exactly the place that isn’t really our heart wish.

Why is that? Maybe you start by looking at yourself as a kind of object, something that you have to take care of. But what you really want is the happiness of others, so how are you going to look after yourself? It doesn’t work and you get yourself into a knot – you’re not looking after yourself, you’re exhausted, and then you collapse on everybody because you can’t carry on. You’re feeling bad, you’ve forgotten how to enjoy yourself, and it doesn’t work. What’s happening?

I think this is where it is useful to think in terms of personal mandala. Rather than concentrating on your “self” ( which in any case isn’t the self you thought it was) you can open up and see that actually you are experiencing a unique mandala: the mandala of your world, your connections. It’s your mandala. You can’t pin it down, find the boundaries and say what’s in it and what isn’t, but somehow you’re operating within it all the time.

Your personal mandala includes your body, your connections, your relationships, your whole world. It includes all your qualities. It’s this mandala that is going to become Enlightened and benefit all beings. So it is sacred – every bit of it is sacred. You’re not trying to get rid of anything, even if there are problems. You’re trying to operate it in line with your heart wish, to run it in a way that’s going to bring happiness to all beings. It’s important therefore to take care of the whole thing. Its no use dividing it up as if there could be a separate “me” that’s going to do everything. You need to allow the whole mandala to express itself, starting from the heart. You have to feel happy in your heart and open out from there. If you’re feeling a lot of pressure, so you aren’t happy then the mandala will suffer unless you do something about it. You’ve got to somehow work out a way of dealing with that pressure so that you can let the energy flow and you can work for the benefit of all beings.

If you listen to the voice that says, “I shouldn’t be thinking about myself, I should be thinking of others”, you are just adding to the pressure and blocking the energy of the mandala. You need to lighten up somehow or other. Probably the best way you can look after yourself in fact is to have a better sense of humour. Looking at it another way, its good to notice your faults. But if you’re using them to put pressure on yourself that’s not helpful. So notice your faults, make an aspiration to do better and then lighten up. If you feel light- hearted energy will bubble up and you’ll be able to give that out.

It’s important to realise that as with any mandala, you have to protect the centre. That feeds the whole mandala and allows it to serve its central principle, which in this case is the heart wish. It follows then that although it is good to extend your mandala to include all beings, that doesn’t mean you neglect the people that are close to the centre, because they are connected to you in a special way, and your relationship with them has a special function in the personal mandala. You can’t just ignore them when problems come up. If these relationships are putting pressure on you, then you need to do what you can to rearrange the central part of the mandala so that that’s not happening.

And you can do that in different ways. You don’t actually have to get rid of people! You can change the way you’re thinking so you’re not allowing another person to put on that extra pressure. In that way they will be able to support the mandala, and so benefit all beings. If you have the confidence to take your seat, not allowing yourself to be bullied, you can turn it into a Dharma situation. You could say that’s looking after yourself, in a sense, but I don’t think you need to use that language. It’s so close to the usual egocentric way of talking. What we are talking about here is much more meaningful than that.

That’s why I like to talk in terms of the personal mandala rather than the “self” because then the language is quite separate. When you’re talking about your personal mandala you are thinking about the whole world, rather than splitting yourself off as a separate bit that you have to look after. It’s an important point. I think a lot of confusion arises when people try to do good but they become disconnected from their personal mandalas and suffer a lot 

But doing too much is never really bad. It’s never the case that the goodness in wanting to help others is wasted. It’s not as if your frenetic efforts to help others are essentially problematic – after all, they still come from the heart wish. It’s just a practical problem. You just need to learn that doing too much has practical consequences.

 All the connections you make, in this life and past and future lives, will help those beings. So if you’re running around helping everybody, you’re making lots of connections which will all ripen into something good. Meanwhile though, in order to awaken at all, you need to slow down and nurture the whole mandala in a more skilful way.

What matters is that we have the whole mandala in view. How much rest do you need in order to get your strength back? Maybe you will take more than you need but that’s not the end of the world. You aren’t being selfish if you do, because you are doing it for the sake of the whole mandala: you are only being selfish if you think of yourself as somehow separate from this world. If you see that you are integral to it, you will do whatever you can to keep that open-heartedness. If you find that you’ve taken on so much that you’ve lost your spirit, you will shed some of it to lighten up.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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